Reading vs. Speaking
In the Forbes article, “Do You Read Fast Enough To Be Successful?” Brett Nelson explores the reading habits of highly successful people compared to those of the average reader. We are swamped with information that we can’t possibly consume and comprehend unless we prioritize it and prune away the non-essentials. If you read at an average pace of 250-300 words per minute, you would need to “set aside at least two hours of reading every day just to keep up—you know, when you’re not doing other stuff like working, eating and spending time with your family.” It’s no wonder infographics are popular; if you can crunch 300 words into a single, visual image that can be understood and remembered at a glance, you’ve saved over a minute’s worth of reading, on average.
I took Staples’ “What speed do you read?” test, and was surprised to learn that my reading speed was well above average, at about 700 words per minute. It varies – 528, when bleary-eyed and insufficiently caffeinated, to 930 on an immediate retake. You have to be honest with yourself, if you take the test more than once – the passage and quiz don’t change.
According to the “Words per minute” entry at Wikipedia, the recommended rate of speech for audiobooks is a mere 150–160 words per minute, which is the range that people comfortably hear and vocalize words. Note that this is about half the average reading speed. If you want to increase your reading speed, make sure you’re not subvocalizing (whispering, or hearing in your head) each word as you read it. Slide presentations tend to be even slower – about 100-125 wpm for a “comfortable pace.” Various factors, including nervousness, affect speech rates, but the fastest is 637.
This led to a sudden understanding of why I don’t like getting my information from TV and YouTube: audio and video are simply too slow. It would take me four times as long – at best – to get the same information I can get by reading. But for the average reader, it’s not that much slower – and it’s certainly less laborious – than reading.
That said, having the TV news on in the background, while brushing my teeth and getting dressed, allows me to “skim” the news highlights.
Learning: Back to Basics
For years, people have discussed various “styles” of learning: visual, auditory, kinesthetic. According to “Learning Styles Debunked: There is No Evidence Supporting Auditory and Visual Learning, Psychologists Say,” “No less than 71 different models of learning styles have been proposed over the years. … But psychological research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim. Given the lack of scientific evidence, the … currently widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources.” This is reassuring to me, given that some online test I took years ago suggested that the right and left sides of my brain had switched places, and I had gone from being primarily an auditory learner to a more visual-kinesthetic one. I assumed it was an age thing, and the apparent effects of aging were startling. But now, I wonder – if I remove the scapegoat of “aging,” it seems much more likely that the shift is due to environmental factors. Perhaps, as a student, I trained myself to pay attention to what the instructor was saying (even as I practiced daydreaming and staring out the window, I had near-perfect recall of the lecture). I read more – partly out of necessity, but mostly for pleasure. In the corporate world, there’s no primary “auditory” or “visual” or “kinesthetic” mode of consuming information. Old habits die hard, but they do die, and are replaced by different ones. We learn to pay attention to what we think we’re going to need, and brain-dump the rest.
Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, professor and director of graduate studies in psychology at the University of Virginia and author of several books, explains, in “Cone of learning or cone of shame?” why the ‘learning pyramid’ is wrong and says, “It’s usually a good bet to try to think about material at study in the same way that you anticipate that you will need to think about it later.” It follows that if we think we won’t need the information later, we don’t store it – or we store it in the broom closet of the brain and forget about it.
Willingham asks, in his blog, “Do we underestimate our youngest learners?” I think so. Underestimating children is a common adult mistake, and can lead to some pretty boring children’s books. It’s one of the worst, and most annoying habits of many aspiring writers. But I wonder if that’s not partly because, as adults, we’re acutely aware of how much there is to know, and it seems overwhelming. Children are naturally curious and hungry for knowledge, and their capacity for absorbing it is fairly limitless – probably because no one has yet told them how hard it is to learn, or that their brains have a finite capacity for it.